The decline and fall of high school debating in America

July 30, 2023 • 11:45 am

From Matthew Yglesias’s Substack site Slow Boring comes a frightening article by Maya Bodnick describing what’s happened to high-school debating in America. It’s turning into an exercise in “critical theory”, with judges telling contestants in advance what kind of politics they favor, the debaters ignoring the assigned topic, and debaters speaking so fast you can’t understand them. Further, many of the debaters advocate a dismantling of America, no matter what system they’re talking about.

It’s a far cry from the kind of debates we see at Oxford or Cambridge, or that Hitchens and others have engaged in. And because Bodnick tells us that many famous current politicians (e.g. Lyndon Johnson, Nancy Pelosi, and John F. Kennedy) honed their skills in high-school debating, this change bodes ill for the future politics of America.

Click to read:

Here’s Bodnick’s take on what’s happened:

In a traditional debate round, students argue over a topic assigned by the tournament — for example, “The U.S. should adopt universal healthcare.” One side is expected to argue in favor of the motion (the affirmation side), and one against (the negation side). However, in recent years, many debaters have decided to flat-out ignore the assigned topic and instead hijack the round by proposing brand new (i.e., wholly unrelated to the original topic), debater-created resolutions that advocate complex social criticisms based on various theories — Marxism, anti-militarism, feminist international relations theory, neocolonialism, securitization, anthropocentrism, orientalism, racial positionality, Afro-Pessimism, disablism, queer ecology, and transfeminism. (To be clear, traditional feminism is out of fashion and seen as too essentialist.)

These critical theory arguments, known as kritiks, are usually wielded by the negation side to criticize the fundamental assumptions of their affirmation side opponents. Kritik advocates argue that the world is so systematically broken that discussing public policy proposals and reforms misses what really matters: the need to fundamentally revolutionize society in some way. For example, if the topic was “The U.S. should increase the federal minimum wage,” the affirmation side might provide some arguments supporting this policy. But then the negation side, instead of arguing that the government shouldn’t raise the minimum wage, might reject spending any time on the original resolution and counter-propose a Marxist kritik.

Here’s an example of how the negation might introduce this kritik:

Revolutionary theory is a prior question — the aff [proposal about raising the minimum wage] is irrelevant in the grand scheme of capitalism… [You as a judge should] evaluate the debate as a dialectical materialist — you are a historian inquiring into the determinant factors behind the PMC [first affirmation speech] — The role of the ballot is to endorse the historical outlook of the topic with the most explanatory power… Vote negative to endorse Marxist labor theory of value.

Or, if the topic was “The U.S. should increase troops in the Korean DMZ,” the negation might choose not to argue against the resolution and propose a securitization kritik:

Securitization is a political decision that discursively constructs certain phenomena as threats to justify their management and extermination. The practice of security erases alternate perspectives through the dominance of Western rationalism, permitting unchecked violence against alterity. We should use this round to create space for an epistemological multiplicity that breaks down dominant discourses of North Korea.

These are two examples of negation kritiks. Additionally, sometimes the affirmation side kicks off the debate by proposing a kritik — they don’t even bother advocating for the original resolution! For example, let’s say the original topic was “The U.S. should impose a carbon tax.” The affirmation side could decide to throw the resolution out the window and instead argue for an Afro-Pessimism kritik:

Western societies are structured on Enlightenment-era philosophy that fundamentally does not value Black people as people, and defines them as slaves. Even though documents like the Constitution have been amended to end slavery, it created a society that is rotten to the core, and the only way to fix it is to burn down civil society.

These kinds of kritiks are starting to dominate the two main platforms for high-school debates, “Policy” (now 67% kritik) and “Lincoln-Douglas (now 45% kritik).

In response, people started two new and more traditional debate forums: Public Forum and Parliamentary. But critical theory is starting to invade both of these, too. And they’re self-reinforcing, for as debaters age and become coaches and judges, “kritik” debates became more common.

What’s scary is how the judges publish in advance the kind of arguments they favor. Here’s a list of judges’ preferences from the 2023 “Tournament of Champions” debate (the winning debate from that contest is in the video below):

  • Love the K, this is where i spent more of the time in my debate and now coaching career, I think I have an understanding of generally every K, in college, I mostly read Afro-Pessimism/Gillespie, but other areas of literature I am familiar with cap, cybernetics, baudrillard, psychoanalysis, Moten/Afro-Optimism, Afro-Futurism, arguments in queer and gender studies, whatever the K is I should have somewhat a basic understanding of it.”
  • Before anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist… I cannot check the revolutionary proletarian science at the door when I’m judging… I will no longer evaluate and thus never vote for rightest capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments… Examples of arguments of this nature are as follows: fascism good, capitalism good, imperialist war good, neoliberalism good, defenses of US or otherwise bourgeois nationalism, Zionism or normalizing Israel, colonialism good, US white fascist policing good, etc.”
  • “…I’ve almost exclusively read variations of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism… I find these arguments to be a valuable and fun tool in debate and am happy to evaluate these debates to the best of my ability.”
  • Kritik vs. kritik debates are “currently my favorite type of debate to judge. My literature knowledge is primarily concentrated in Marxism, Maoism, and proletarian feminism, and I have a baseline familiarity with postcolonial theory, queer theory, and feminist standpoint theory, but I’m down to evaluate anything as long as it’s explained well.”
  • Ks I have written files on/answering/into the lit for – spanos, psycho, cap, communist horizon, security, fem, mao, death cult, berlant, scranton, queerness, set col…”
  • You will not lose my ballot just for running a K. Ever.”
  • I am frequently entertained and delighted by well-researched critical positions on both the affirmative and negative”
  • Kritiks “are my favorite arguments to hear and were the arguments that I read most of my career.”
  • Ks are my favorite!”

This, of course, completely ruins the way that, I think, debates should be to run: winners aren’t supposed to cater to judges’ tastes, but to make the best argument that they’re assigned. And they’re supposed to stick to their topic! In the end, Bodnick tells us why we should fear this trend:

This is what concerns me so deeply about this seismic shift in the debate landscape—and why I would hate to see the Public Forum and Parliamentary formats follow the trajectory of Policy and Lincoln-Douglas. Kritiks promote a worldview with pernicious implications for American politics among a group of people who are likely to end up in positions to have a serious impact on American politics.

When debaters reject the topic and advocate for these critical theories, they choose not to engage in pragmatic policy discussions. Instead, they condemn American institutions and society as rotten to the core. They conclude that reform is hopeless and the only solution is to burn it all down. Even if they’re not advocating for kritiks, in order to succeed at the national level, debaters have to learn how to respond critical theory arguments without actually disagreeing with their radical principles.

High school debate has become an activity that incentivizes students to advocate for nihilist accelerationism in order to win rounds. It’s the type of logic that leads young people to label both parties as equally bad and to disengage from electoral politics. What most normal people think debate is about — advocating either side of a plausible public-policy topic — is no longer the focus. With kritiks taking a larger share, debate is increasingly societally rejectionist. Too often the activity is no longer a forum for true discussion, but a site of radicalization.

Now surely you’re going to want to see an example of the new style of “kritik” debate. A championship debate is below, and note how fast the debaters talk. This is very common now, and I don’t know how either listeners or the judges can even make out what’s being said. As Bodnick notes:

These formats were started as a response not only to critical theory, but also to speed debate — often a related phenomenon. If you watch any of the examples of kritiks that I’ve linked to, it’s likely you will not be able to understand what the debaters are saying because they’re talking so fast. I abhor this trend, but it’s not the focus of this article.

So I give you a good example in the video below:

This was the championship debate at the 2023 Tournament of Champions Lincoln-Douglas Debate Tournament between Muzzi Khan and Karan Shah. The decision is a 2-1 for the affirmative (Dombcik, Kiihnl, *Schwerdtfeger). The 2NR goes for the Kant NC.

The topic?

At the University of Kentucky’s 2023 Tournament of Champions, held earlier this month, senior Muzzi Khan won the national championship in Lincoln-Douglas Debate. The topic was “Resolved: Justice requires open borders for human migration.” After an excellent preliminary record, Khan went on to win five single elimination rounds.

You don’t have to listen to the whole hour, but do sample both debaters. Good luck understanding them! The second debater starts at 17:53.  They sound as if they’re speaking in a foreign language!

44 thoughts on “The decline and fall of high school debating in America

  1. In the 60’s and 70’s we paraded around campus in our Che Guevara tees, waving Mao’s Little Red Book. I can’t speak for others but in my circle this was mainly a ritualized mating dance to attract the right kind of attention. After graduation we all got jobs on Wall Street or at Daddy’s office, and the world somehow continued to turn. Performative hipper-than-thou radical politics name -dropping was a parlor game practiced at all the best colleges by people who then went on to law school and Big Law firms.
    The debate judges in 2023 spouting about “Afro-pessimism”, “revolutionary proletarian science,” and “violence against alterity” are more than likely highly privileged, coddled, upper middle class kids who are anxious to prove something to their peers- and, hopefully, shock their parents a bit. The chance that they will go on to “burn it all down” after graduating from Brown is zero.
    This is a game, and I’m not sure it’s that different from the games we played when we were their age, although it’s too bad they are now wrecking high school debate. “People over 30″ have always thought the young were ” a bunch of nihilists”- because they take their BS at face value.

    1. “In the 60’s and 70’s we paraded around campus in our Che Guevara tees, waving Mao’s Little Red Book. I can’t speak for others but in my circle this was mainly a ritualized mating dance to attract the right kind of attention.”

      Bwa ha ha! That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in awhile 😉

    2. This isn’t the 70s or 80s. The far (identarian) left has taken over high schools (and lower grades) in 2023. That wasn’t true in the past. Any number of schools have gone ‘test optional’. That wasn’t true in the past. No one needed to write a defense of merit in the 70s and 80s. Now PNAS rejects any defense of merit. At one time, elite high-schools were more-or-less universally accepted. Now they are denounced as ‘racist’. At one time 2 + 2 was though to be 4. Now, 2 + 2 = white racism.

    3. The fact that the main “game” being played by students in American Universities is radical revolutionary communism and various shades of Marxism should be extremely worrying. Sure they might not all proceed to “burn it all down” after graduation, but their opinions and ideological convictions will shape whichever places they end up working at, including the government. In fact, they’ve already made some absolutely incredible changes to the sociopolitical fabric of the US in only a few years with the widespread adoption of things like “Diversity Equity and Inclusion” by all of the mainstream political left as well as corporate America. Or how about the widespread adoption of “Critical Race Theory” and Queer Theory and gender ideology by the US government and education system? Or how about the decades of affirmative action which has now been decided to be unconstitutional?
      I’m sure the BLM (“we are trained Marxists”) riots were a “game” too.

  2. As for the video: This is not a debate but a silly speed-talking competition. It seems “rapid-fire talk”—machine-gunning words & sentences at opponents—has become part of Woke rhetorics.

    1. Not just Woke rhetorics. I’m thinking of the rapid-fire delivery of such right-wingers as Ben Shapiro and J. Warner Wallace. I call it Gish Gallop on steroids.

      1. Can’t speak to Shapiro because I’ver never watched any of his presentations but J Warner Wallace is much better than the two losers in that video. He does employ the Gish gallop, but he communicates his points very effectively, even if he progresses to the next one before anybody has had time to analyse the previous one critically.

  3. With regard to “note how fast the debaters talk”: this is something that’s been going on for decades in policy debate, even when I was a high school debater way back when (and college debaters are even faster, but more intelligible).

      1. Judges–and debaters–have to be very good at understanding what is said and writing it down quickly. In the “cross-examination” time, it is common for the other side to ask for clarification/explanation and even to see the printed version of the sources they are quoting (what is referred to as “evidence” which is quotations from various sources). And at the end of the debate, judges sometimes also ask to see the written version of the evidence.

  4. When I was at what Americans call high school, I took part in some debates, even a couple of competitive ones. The reason I did it was to try to develop some public speaking skills. As a teenager, I was terrified of speaking to large groups of people.

    I kind of lost interest because the judges tended to be a bit fickle. We lost one debate because, although are arguments were better, the other side put on a better performance. We lost another debate because although we did a better presentation, the other side had better arguments.

    Anyway, the nonsense described in this article would go away instantly if the judges behaved honestly. If you were penalised for not addressing the topic, the so called “kritiks” would instantly disappear. The talking too fast to be understood would instantly disappear.

    Talking of talking too fast, when I read the article, I assumed it meant things like the “Gish gallop” where you fire off a number of points in rapid succession and then, when your opponent fails to address every single one of them in their rebuttal, you claim victory. I was not prepared for what happened in the video you linked at the end. That was completely ridiculous. It wasn’t a debate, its was speed reading. Were there any adults in the room? How can anybody think that what they were doing had any value whatsoever?

    1. That thing Americans call high school. Yes that thing just before they go to the bank for loans.

    2. Actually, they do exactly what you expected. They reel off a bunch of arguments, and if the other side doesn’t refute one of them, the first side says the point has gone uncontested and must be considered correct.

      The rapid speaking part of this is ridiculous. But it is great training to learn how to prepare logical arguments based on evidence. Lincoln-Douglas debate, referred to in the blog post, was created to have another debate option that emphasized oratory skill as well as logic.

      1. You have six comments on this thread. Please read the Roolz and try not to dominate this discussion. Thanks.

        As for “preparing logical arguments based on evidence,” I’m not impressed when the debaters are allowed to completely ignore the question and talk about something else.

    1. I’ve seen that clip. My impression at the time was that the “debaters” were adopting the style of trauma victims at long last granted an opportunity to plead for justice against the thugs that had reduced their lives to shambles. That repetitive agonized hiccup/sob did it for me.

      Philosopher Rebecca Goldstein has written eloquently about how Greek debate was a critical step in the foundation of science. You must make a case which persuades people who don’t agree with you, and not just pretend to convince those already in agreement. This presages both testing an hypothesis and listening to the critics — neither of which could ever be derived from whatever the hell this is.

  5. I was under the impression that the core intent of debate was to use cogent argumentation and skillful communication to get your “truth” across to a wider audience. And to do so more effectively than your opponent. Maybe there is a place for a sub genre of speed debating but I think that debate in general should at least partly involve the development and demonstration of the ability to communicate to a wider audience, not just some supernatural speed listening judges.

  6. They should have put music to this. It sounded similar to those phrases as kids we tried to go as fast as possible eg she sells seashells by the seashores. Utter nonsense.

    Feels like we are watching the golden era of academia die in real time right in front of us.

  7. I’m surprised no-one has brought up Oxford-style debate, as heard in the podcast Intelligence Squared. Winners are decided by which side shifts the audience’s opinion the most as measured by before-and-after polls. Taking that approach would seemingly knock out both excessively fast talking and off-the-topic gobbledegook!

  8. When everything becomes a game, when it’s all about profit, status – it’s almost evolutionary…

    This is what you get. When the essence of attempting to approach truth is replaced by the scoring of those that spit out Truth™, how can one be surprised?

  9. If I were to judge that hot mess, I would conclude that the both parties lost, on the grounds that neither of them “said” anything… Done.

    1. Yes, that was industrial strength incompetence. My 75 year old hearing doesn’t help, and the microphones and room sound qualities probably weren’t the best, but gabbling, appallingly modulated, unintelligible voices do not persuade if it is impossible to follow the arguments as they are delivered, or the arguments are off topic – not that I could tell just what their arguments were.

      From 41 years of teaching English, including debating, discussion skills and public speaking, to mostly 13-18 year olds, many of whom were second language speakers, I do not recall such a travesty. These youngsters have been badly misled by their teachers and judges in how to develop and deliver persuasive arguments.

  10. Watching these performances, and reading the transcripts of their “arguments” I can sum it up in one word: insulting.

    And the background of those judges…all pretty much Marxists? That was also insulting…or maybe offensive. Either way, OY!

  11. People “educated” while this (almost certainly temporary – cf Mao’s Cultural Revolution – madness persist will be a “lost generation” with few if any employment prospects in politics, or any field where coherent thought and communications are key skill requirements.

  12. A certified interpreter / transilterator would have a nightmare with this or maybe not, the temptation would look like this, a solid middle finger.

  13. One could throw a wrench into many debate topics by pointing out that there is no “should” in life. “Should” is an attempt to lead argumentation down a path that is not necessarily legitimate. Take the topic “The U.S. should increase the federal minimum wage” for instance. For decades politicians have pretended to support wage earners by responding to complaints about low pay with bills to raise the minimum wage. Do these bills help wage earners who earn more than the minimum wage and yet struggle to get by while their bosses give themselves enormous raises every year? No. The politicians coddle the CEOs. The topic itself is illegitimate because it doesn’t reflect reality.

    One doesn’t have to be as Marxist kritik to grasp the game the politicians play. Nor does one have to adopt the Marxist gobbledygook.

  14. Never mind the debate teams – if someone can openly state “I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist” and still be taken seriously by supposedly educated people, something has gone seriously wrong in education! (Or could you imagine someone stating “I am primarily influenced by Mein Kampf and Mussolini’s works, along with Machiavelli and Nietzsche”, and remain a juror?)

    1. I agree that anyone announcing themselves proudly as Marxist-Leninist-Maoist is either profoundly naive or worse, a true believer with all the brutal implications. But when the name Machiavelli comes up I’m always taken back to this article that brings into context the world he was writing in, and the nuances of his significance. Fascinating read:

  15. Helen Joyce just eXcommunicated the article, and I’m hastily reviewing it now. A couple simple ideas but it takes a number of words to write out:

    1. The Marxist Kritik document has “dialectical materialism” in it. This is a Big Deal – Hegel, perhaps Rousseau, were interested in “dialectic” things and how they function in the philosophies. I’m saying it is worth reading up on, it is a substantial part of the philosophy :

    2. A Devil’s Advocate argument for the speed (which I haven’t heard yet) : get better YouTube hits. Ben Shapiro (noted above) indeed sounds quick. I’d note that he and many many other videos from many very different channels highly edit the spoken words so there is little “dead time”.

    Of course, if the train of logic is on the rails, or one is knowledgeable of the material, it could be useful. But of course, all that can vary.

    But I’m anticipating the worst as I cue up the linked thought reform “debate”.

    …[listens to 20 seconds ]…

    That is god-awful to listen to or even follow. It ain’t debate, and ain’t like Ben Shapiro or even Mr. Beast – or even good virtuoso musicians, FFS. Maybe it has something to do with the automated YouTube transcript, but no idea.

    Devil’s Advocate argument is rebuffed.

    1. About Dialectical analysis, quoting wikipedia at “Marxist dialectic”, all on Wikipedia :

      “Marx proposed that the most effective solution to the problems caused by contradiction was to address the contradiction and then rearrange the systems of social organization that are the root of the problem.[4]”

      … illuminating point, IMHO. “In the USSR, under Joseph Stalin, Marxist dialectics became “diamat” (short for dialectical materialism)”. I find it intriguing that Marx himself also writes the word “demiurgos” – the Gnostic Demiurge, artisan of the universe, potentially evil (see Wikipedia).

      Compare to :

      “The Hegelian dialectic describes the change of forms of thought through their own internal contradictions into higher forms that unite said oppositions,[26]”

      From :

      Also see :

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